Monday, April 7, 2008
Through the looking glass in 2008
A few years ago, I was stopped by TSA as my hand luggage went through the x-ray machine at the airport. I was on my way to visit my daughter and her family in St. Paul, MN. Since all I had in my small carry-on suitcase were clothes, a vase from my late mother's home and reading material, I was stunned when the TSA scanner told me to step aside. There was a questionable object in my suitcase, he said. I was bewildered. Questionable?? Besides my personal things, the only object was the vase, wrapped carefully in towels and whatever to keep it from breaking I was bringing it to my daughter -- an heirloom from her grandmother. The TSA guard opened the suitcase, unwrapped the vase and advised me that item was the culprit. Huh? An etched glass vase? What I didn't know then is that while leaded glass is transparent to the human eye, it blocks x-rays. As with all other lead objects, leaded glass is an x-ray barrier. Glass, as it turns out, is extaordinary. Indeed, the myriad substances we classify as glass are packed with surprises. Technically, glass isn't even a solid but an amorphous solid, a state between liquid and solid. Archeologists believe the first finds, glass formed in nature, were probably in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The oldest man-made glass artifacts date back about 3600 years ago in Egypt, Greece and China, according to glassonline.com. Since then, glass has come a long way, baby. If you have ever wondered how artisans blow complex and exquisite glassworks, or if you've ever had an exploratory medical procedure involving fiberoptics or looked through a bulletproof, frosted or shatterproof window, Chicago has an exhibit for you. Virtually every branch of science depends glass -- more and more as technology develops. Chicago's world renowned Museum of Science and Industry has assembled an astounding interactive (for all ages) exhibit, "The Glass Experience," that continues through August. At the press opening early this month, I felt like Alice going through the looking glass -- eyeing wonder after wonder. For starters, visitors to the exhibit are greeted by 12 huge and exquisite 24-light lead crystal chandeliers created by Baccarat, one of the oldest and most prestigious names in glass. Each chandelier features hundreds of pieces of handcut crystal, designed to reflect light in the most elegant and eye-catching way. Be sure to look up as you enter the show. Glassworks by artisans from ancient times through today, including contemporary glass magician, Dale Chihuly, generate wonder as in, "How did they do that?" A plethora of artists/studios and historic figures bring the development of art glass from the oldest to the most modern and complex handmade pieces. Live glassblowing demonstrations are continuous, thanks to Corning Museum of Glass. But what most intrigued me is the use of glass in science and technology. Optics are a big part of this exhibit with numerous examples of how glass behaves and what it can do, in addition to breaking light into the spectrum in many ways. The Chandra x-ray telescope, deployed in 1999 by Space Shuttle Columbia and orbiting Earth at a distance of more more than 100,000 kilometers,can see billions of light years into the past, observing black holes, supernovas and dark matter in an ongoing quest to discover the origins of the universe and what it looks like today. Remember, the light from an object that is, say two billion light years away, was generated by that object two billion years ago. Much of what we look at through telescopes may not even be in existence anymore! Meanwhile, "(Chandra's) resolution is equivalent to being able to read the text of a newspaper a half miles away," MSI press materials state. That is astounding. A lens such as those used in Chandra's complex technoloy is on display. A case devoted to fiberoptic cables notes a fiberoptics could download the entire Libary of Congress in less than a minute. More and more, communications are depending on fiberoptics and the incredible speed with which it can transmit information. And then there is fiberglass. Most people think it was developed in the 20th century. I definitely was surprised to learn it was first discovered in the 19th century by legendary glassmaker Edward Libbey. He developed a form of fiberglass from which he made clothing, a dress and tie, displayed in the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. That strange-looking necktie is in the glass exhibit Filled with information and objects as well as interactives, the exhibit would take pages of writing to totally explore. I couldn't begin to touch on every interesting fact or field in which glass is indispensable. But anyone curious about glass or interested in any contemporary technology and its history will not want to miss "The Glass Experience." Oh, one more point I want to note here. The glass exhibit gift shop is very, very cool! You can check out the museum and exhibit at www.msichicago.org.
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